‘Mississippi Masala’: Exploring Post-Colonialism, ‘Indophobia’, and South Asian Anti-Blackness
Set against the backdrop of the 1972 Indian expulsion from Idi Amin’s Uganda, this arthouse film remains important in examining themes around post-colonialism, xenophobia, colorism, and anti-blackness within the South Asian community.
Recently stumbling upon this film, I joked to my good friend that we ought to watch it simply based on its title alone. We have a corny sense of humor, and a movie titled ‘Mississippi Masala’ would provide no shortage of laughter from what was sure to be a cheesy plot about the relationship between a Black guy and an Indian girl living in the American South. The movie ended up being quite good in a serious way — despite maintaining an overall lighthearted vibe, it introduces racial dynamics never explored in either Hollywood or Bollywood: South Asians’ relationship with Africans and African-Americans. Director Mira Nair’s showcasing of complex themes against the backdrop of the 1972 Asian expulsion from Uganda makes her unique film worth revisiting.
‘Indophobia’ in Uganda — An unintended consequence of…erm, ‘Integrate and Conquer’?
The movie starts in Kampala, Uganda in 1972, and President Idi Amin has just issued a decree stating Asians are to be expelled from the country. For context, most Asian immigrants in Uganda at the time were originally from the Indian subcontinent — around 80,000 Indians in total. Indian families had been living in Uganda for many generations, emigrating during the time of British colonial rule in India. Many Indians had been brought by the British as early as the late 19th century to build the country’s railway system.
The movie follows the story of a young Indian family — a mother, father, and their daughter Mina, who flee from Uganda and settle in Greenwood, Mississippi. Having lived a comfortable life in Uganda, as Mina’s father Jay was a wealthy lawyer, the family is now forced to start from scratch and begin earning a meager living working at a motel. Jay yearns to return to Uganda, considering himself to be “Ugandan first, Indian second”. He has flashbacks of his childhood growing up in Kampala with his best friend Okelo, who coldly tells him at the time of Amin’s expulsion order that he should indeed leave — “Africa is for Africans. Black Africans”. Okelo’s words sting Jay deeply. Reflecting on them from time to time, he often bemoans that he was forced out of his homeland solely due to “the color of [his] skin”.
I marvel at this particular racial dynamic depicted throughout the film. Having lived in the U.S. my whole life, I’ve only ever witnessed one specific form and directionality of racial hierarchy. To see scenes of Indians being transported in buses out of the country overseen by Black authorities feels so alien it appears to be something occurring in a parallel universe.
“Africa is for Africans. Black Africans.”
Indeed, Idi Amin’s fascist decree and anti-Indian demagoguery fomented growing Indophobia in the country. Some of Amin’s Indophobic rhetoric eerily echoed the anti-Semitic rhetoric of Hitler (a man whom he greatly admired), as he labeled Indians as greedy mercantile traders who were plundering Uganda. The film’s character of Okelo clearly bought into Amin’s rhetoric, despite his lifelong friendship with Jay. It’s interesting to note that Amin’s hatred was directed towards Indians, not particularly towards the colonial power that brought them to displace the jobs he wanted for Ugandans in the first place. In interviews, he chastised the British for bringing Indians to complete the railways, but fascinatingly exclaimed that the British are his “best friend”. Amin’s mentality is not surprising. History has seen this play out many times in the prolonged aftermath of colonial “divide and conquer” — division between Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs during the 1947 Partition of India, the 1971 Bangladesh War of Independence, and the 1994 Rwandan Genocide of the Tutsi, to name a few examples. The racial tension in Uganda was a slight aberration. Rather than strategically divided, two nonwhite groups were inadvertently placed together by a colonial power, and eventually divided on their own.
“Asians came to Uganda to build the railway. The railway is finished — they must leave now. I will give them 90 days to pack up and go. Asians have milked the cow, but not fed it. Africans are poor. Asians are rich. The Asians are sabotaging the economy of Uganda.” — Idi Amin, President of Uganda, 1971–1979
Colorism in the South Asian Community — Tethered to Anti-Blackness
The film touches upon the well-known secret of colorism within the South Asian community several times. Fast-forwarding to years later when the young Indian family has since resettled in Mississippi, the daughter Mina (played by Sarita Choudhry) is now a beautiful 24-year-old woman, and members of the Indian community are eager to see her married. As breathtakingly stunning as she is, Mina still faces prejudice on account of her community’s rampant aversion to darker skin — particularly women with darker skin. During a discussion on the possibility of marrying Harry Patel, a wealthy bachelor, Mina comments to her mother, “Face it, Ma, you’ve got a darky daughter — Harry’s mother doesn’t like darkies.”
In a later scene, Mina and her family attend a local Indian wedding. Two Indian women are shown gossiping about the ludicrous notion that a boy like Harry would marry a poor, dark-skinned women like Mina, as one says to the other, “You can be dark and have money, or you can be fair and have no money, but you can’t be dark and have no money”. Ironically, as one of the two women has an even darker complexion than Mina, this scene reveals the depth of internalized racism within Indians. The colonized mentality of wanting fairer skin stems from a desire of many Indians to be more ‘proximal to whiteness’. Subconsciously buying into the notion their once colonial oppressors fed to them that the white race is most superior and beautiful, Indians often express open contempt for other Indians with darker skin.
The overt colorism depicted throughout the film cannot be understood in isolation from the entrenched anti-blackness that plagues the South Asian community to this day.* Buying into white supremacist ideology that Black people are inferior, South Asians’ colorism is tethered to their anti-blackness, as they neither want to associate with Black people, nor look like them.
(To be properly examined in a future analysis, colorism in India is also deeply tied to Brahminism and entrenched casteism)*.
Anti-black sentiments of South Asians are highlighted throughout the film. Much to her community’s outrage, Mina does not end up marrying a fellow Indian, as she falls in love with Demetrius (played by Denzel Washington), a Black American who owns his own carpet-cleaning business. Upon discovering Mina’s relationship, a group of Indian men in the community start a physical altercation with Demetrius, which ends in the police getting called on Demetrius by one of the men. After this incident, Demetrius loses his business and reputation in town, while the Indian men who instigated the fight remain unscratched. One of the men, Anil, was more overt in his anti-blackness than the rest — calling Demetrius a “carpet-cleaning kallu” (‘kallu’ being a racial slur for Black people) and threatening him to stay away from “our women”. Upon Mina’s relationship being divulged to the Indian community, one of the two women from earlier remarks to her friend, “Can you imagine dumping Harry Patel for a Black?”
Mina’s parents reprimand her for seeing Demetrius, her mother telling her that she has brought shame onto the family. Still pained by his childhood friend’s betrayal when he sided with Idi Amin, Mina’s father tells her, “Mina, believe me — I am speaking from experience. People stick to their own kind. You are forced to accept that when you grow older. I am only trying to spare you the pain.” In spite of longing for his African homeland, Mina’s father displays anti-black sentiments in his disapproval, which were likely exacerbated by his family’s expulsion.
One of the most gripping scenes is when Demetrius eventually confronts Mina’s father on his intolerance. He implicitly calls out the Indian community’s proclivity to lean into the “model minority” myth: a false notion perpetuated by white Americans that Asian minorities — supposedly well-to-do, subservient, hardworking people — are to be a model for namely Black and Latinx communities to emulate. This trope has caused great division between Asians and Black people, whereby the former takes advantage of this myth in a failed attempt to climb the racial hierarchical ladder at the expense of the latter. ‘Divide and conquer’ wins again.
“So you think I ain’t good enough for your daughter, is that it? . . . I know you and your folks can come here from God knows where and be about as black as the ace of spades and as soon as you get here you start acting white, and treating us like we your doormats. [Gesturing to his skin color] I know that you and your daughter ain’t but a few shades from this right here — that I know.” — Demetrius to Mina’s father
Billed as a niche ‘art’ film, Mississippi Masala was never designed to be consumed by a mainstream American audience. But nuanced stories like this need to be brought to the fore as the world experiences a powerful reckoning today, examining its entrenched anti-blackness. Anti-blackness in the South Asian community stems from many things, but the continued perpetuation of the myth of white supremacy, the endurance of centuries-long colonization, and collective indifference remain top contenders in understanding its pervasiveness. Mira Nair’s 1991 film Mississippi Masala grapples with these complex subjects that, well, remain pervasive as ever — 28 years later.